Wednesday 26 March 2003

Iain M. Banks: Look to Windward (2000)

Edition: Orbit, 2000
Review number: 1149

The very first of Banks' Culture novels was entitled Consider Phlebas, a quotation from The Wasteland; by giving this novel a title taken from the previous line, it is clear that the author intends the reader to immediately connect the two more intimately than are the half dozen or so written in between. The nature of the connection is perhaps given by the remainder of the "Consider Phlebas" line, "who was once handsome and tall as you" - though The Wasteland is a notoriously difficult poem to understand - and indicates that the novels are intended as commentaries on the life style of the reader. The two novels are also more closely concerned with the core of the Culture than the others, which tend to concentrate on its periphery.

The idea that the novel is intended as a commentary makes Look to Windward sound difficult and worthy, but in fact it is one of Banks' most accessible and enjoyable novels. It is about the preparations being made to commemorate an event of a long finished war, as the light from two stars turned to novae as weapons reaches Culture Orbital Masaq'. The event is to be marked by the first perfmance of a new work by an eminent Chelgrian composer, an exile from his home world because of his attitude to his species' caste system. The concert is to be attended by an ambassador from the Chelgrians, ostensibly on a mission to persuade Ziller to return home but in fact aiming to destroy the orbital as revenge for the deaths of millions of Chelgrians in a civil war at least partially fomented by the Culture, who felt that the caste system was wrong.

This may not seem at first sight to be a commentary on current culture (and the name of the centrepiece of Banks' novel is another clue to the purpose of the series), but it is: it is about cultural imperialism and how the West has, ever since the Conquistadores, attempted to remake other peoples' ways of life into the image of their own. In particular, the attitude of the Culture to the Chelgrian caste system is reminiscent of the efforts made in India by the British to eradicate the similar system there. The message is similar to that of The Business, Banks' previous novel, also among his most accessible.

Humour is an element in most of Banks' work, even though it is usually of an extremely black variety. In Look to Windward and The Business, the humour is lighter and more obvious, which is the major reason why they are particularly easy to read. (They also eschew the experimental structure common in his work, though an unusually large proportion of Look to Windward does take place in flashback.) Either would be an excellent introduction to Banks' work.

Friday 21 March 2003

Pat Cadigan: Tea From an Empty Cup (1998)

Edition: Voyager, 1998
Review number: 1148

Tea From an Empty Cup takes advantage of the establishment of the cyberpunk subgenre to concentrate on one aspect found in many of its stories, leaving most of the standard ideas lightly sketched in. It is a novel about the way that people might interface with computers in the future, and is in fact almost entirely concerned with virtual reality multi-player games.

When police officer Valentin is called to an artificial reality (AR) arcade to investigate a murder, she doesn't expect to become involved in murky dealings connected with some of the most popular online scenarios (things like "post apocalypse New York"). She enters the particular scenario being accessed by the victim when he died, even though deaths due to being killed in AR are mainly an urban myth (and suggestion in his mind didn't cut his throat), as does Yuki, who is (independently) looking for her missing lover. Both these characters are AR novices, showing the contempt for it that non-gamers already tend to feel for those obsessed with computer games.

The purpose of these two characters is rather too clearly to allow Cadigan to describe her ideas about AR. Two novice users is overkill, and this combines with the fairly unimaginative ideas about how things might develop from today's technology to make the novel sometimes feel like a journalist's article about the MUDs, MOOs and the like. It is a severe problem with Cadigan's writing here that Tea From an Empty Cup frequently reads as though it is a poor copy of one of these articles. I have rarely read a science fiction novel whose extrapolation of future trends is so unimaginative.

Most cyberpunk novels take a selection of ideas from the genre and put them together, a technique which can provide depth to the story. But the concentration of Tea From an Empty Cup on just one means that it seems shallow compared with the religious ideas in Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive or the cultural satire of Stephenson's Snow Crash. The shallowness in Cadigan's writing is exposed even in the subject she concentrates on by the fact that it seems dated already in comparison with Neuromancer, a novel written the best part of two decades earlier.

William Gibson may think that Cadigan is "a major talent" (as quoted on the cover, this is what persuaded me to try the novel, along with the interest of the idea of a criminal investigation pursued jointly in AR and reality). If Gibson is right, little evidence for it comes across in this novel.

Tuesday 11 March 2003

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Edition: Seal Books, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1147

It is not surprising that a high proportion of the science fiction novels which enjoy a high literary reputation outside the genre are dystopias. The fundamental reason for this regard is that the form enables the writer to make comments about their own time, more clearly and unambiguously than almost any other, by exaggerating certain trends to criticise the aspects of current society and culture. For this reason, they also tend to attract writers who have built up a reputation outside the genre, and it is a sad fact that mainstream literary recognition is still easier to receive if you are not perceived as a genre writer. The Handmaid's Tale follows in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley, and is an attack on the growth of fundamentalist American Christianity, particularly on its treatment of women.

After a coup, rights are quiclky removed from American women - their bank accounts are frozen and their employers forced to sack them, for example. They are re-educated to fit into the limited range of occupations permitted to women in the new state of Gilead, such as Marthas (household servants). The narrator of The Handmaid's Tale takes on a role based on the Biblical story of Jacob's wives; when they failed to conceive, he fathered children by their handmaids. In a world in which the fertility of both sexes has dropped dramatically, it is the role for which young women who have demonstrated their ability to bear children are destined, rather to the chagrin of the Wives who have to house them.

It is 1984 with which The Handmaid's Tale has most in common; in both novels, a totalitarian regime has reduced life to a constant dreary drabness against which the narrator, who can remember what it was like beforehand, longs to rebel. Offred (whose original name has been taken away; her identity is just as 'property of Fred') is given the opportunity to do so by the imperfections of those around her, by their failure to live up to the rules. (This is partly a device for Atwood to reveal more about Gilead's culture than Offred's closely confined existence should allow.) Many details are close relatives of their Orwellian equivalents - the exhibition of former traitors, the cathartic ceremonies intended to bind people together - but many, of course, like Orwell's versions, have been derived from the activities of real totalitarian regimes. The major difference between Offred's world and that of 1984 is that Big Brother's regime is asexual (at least on the surface), with little differentiation being made between men and women, while in the world of The Handmaid's Tale the subordinate role of women is of fundamental importance to the way in which things work.

While The Handmaid's Tale is an impressive undertaking, it does not rise to the level of the other dystopias I have mentioned, 1984 and Brave New World being among the greatest works of twentieth century literature. Too much of the mechanism by which Atwood reveals Gilead to the reader is apparent, which is a sign of a writer inexperienced in the genre (compare the dystopias of John Brunner, for example). The novel is also spoilt by a very poor postscript, a little parody of a presentation at an academic conference. On the other hand, The Handmaid's Tale has many strengths. In particular, it conveys the drabness of the regime in Gilead quite excellently (and it is up with Solzhenitsyn and Orwell in this respect) and easily makes its feminist and anti-fundamentalist points. It is not an enjoyable read (and it's not meant to be), and its literary reputation is perhaps over inflated, but it is a successful Orwellian dystopia.

Wednesday 5 March 2003

Michael Moorcock: The Sleeping Sorceress (1971)

Edition: Orion, 1997
Review number: 1155

Much of Moorcock's output consists of series, some written close together (the Runestaff, for example) others very stretched out (the John Daker / Erekose novels). The Elric series, his longest, are in both categories, most novels appearing in the early sixties, this novel in 1971 and The Revenge of the Rose twenty years later. The unusual aspect of the Elric chronology is that the internal order is sometimes different, with the two final novels coming at the beginning of this omnibus (the second of two Elric collections in the current set of Eternal Champion editions).

The Sleeping Sorceress is really a series in itself, consisting of a trilogy of novellas in which Elric seeks revenge on the sorcerer Theleb K'aarna, chasing him across the world on which his dead kingdom of Melniboné lies. The sleeping sorceress of the title, a victim of Theleb K'aarna's enchantments, plays quite a small part in the plot; her significance is mainly due to the feelings she arouses in Elric through her resemblance to his long dead lover.

Elric has probably always been the best known of the various incarnations of the Eternal Champion, and the only Moorcock character who rivals his popularity is Jerry Cornelius (who has rather ambiguous connections with the concept). However, the reasons for this are not really apparent in The Sleeping Sorceress, which is one of Moorcock's less individual novels. (Even the relationship between Elric and his companion Moonglum reminds me of that between Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the central characters in Fritz Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar series.

Philip Kerr: Esau (1996)

Edition: Vintage, 1997
Review number: 1146

A Himalayan climbing accident leads Jack Furness to discover a humanoid skull in a mountain cave - the first uncontestable evidence for the existence of the Yeti. When he returns to the States, he gives it to a friend and occasional lover who also happens to be a researcher into human evolution. This is Swift's big chance for academic fame, so she begins investigating the skull and putting together a grant application for an expedition to the Himalayas. Partly because of the secrecy with which she needs to surround her work with to prevent her breakthrough being stolen, and partly because of tension between India and Pakistan making Nepal an unsafe place to visit, her application is initially turned down. But the tension also makes the CIA keen to introduce an agent into the area, and so, without Swift's knowledge, pressure is brought for the decision to be reverse and for an agent (who is also a scientist in a relevant field - a useful coincidence for the benefit of the plot) is told to apply to be part of the team.

The yeti hunt side of the novel - which provides the title, the Yeti being equated with Esau in the Biblical story - is quite well done, and is reminiscent of stories like The Lost World or the film Jurassic Park. (One of the quotes on the back compares Kerr to Michael Crichton, writer of the story which became that film, but Kerr is a much more satisfying writer - there is more to him than a series of moderately interesting ideas.) Such a hunt in the Himalayas has in itself enough potential danger and interest to make a worthwhile subject for a thriller without the political element introduced here, and the activities of the CIA agent seem to me to detract from Esau as a whole. In fact, the whole of the second half of the novel is a disappointment, after the build up to and the early part of the expedition. If Esau had continued to live up to the promise of its first half, it would have been an excellent thriller, but the implausible politics make it unsatisfying.